I’ll never forget the satisfaction I felt on my first morning at boarding school. I’d never lived away from my parents before, and I felt grown up, like a woman. Sophisticated, even, as I dressed in my new room hung with fairy lights and pieces of pretty cloth.
At one end of my newly-adorned room was a full-length mirror. My uniform consisted of a floor-grazing skirt and tailored shirt and, as I smoothed it down and turned to look at my reflection, I expected to see a woman who looked competent and collected in it. The reality couldn’t have been further from how I’d imagined this happy and hopeful Madeleine would look – the girl looking back at me was chubby, with a face covered in acne and mouthful of metal braces.
A year later, the situation was reversed. I wasn’t happy and I didn’t feel confident or calm. I was instead riddled with panic as exams loomed, heartbroken, and not eating terribly well. But the braces were out, the acne had cleared thanks to some antibiotics, and I was thinner. People often remarked on the change, and when I looked in the mirror I was always surprised to find that while inside I was in turmoil, on the outside, things looked ship shape.
This division between interior and exterior is a familiar theme in my life. It happened when I was in an agonising relationship with a serial cheat but glowed with health (said ‘health’ was actually an obsession with healthy eating bordering on orthorexia that gave me a semblance of control through the lows of being with said partner). It happened when my glamorous aunt died and all I could do to stem the pain and maintain face was to lose myself in beauty, painting my nails onyx black and applying meticulous make-up that made my mum tut in homage to her.
Conversely, I’ve also looked damn heinous while deliriously happy. Late nights out in London followed by purple smudges under my eyes spring to mind. Ditto post-dancing the night away on holidays, when I invariably emerge a sweaty mess of eyeliner and dishevelled hair.
Most memorably, I once spent a week in the Maldives when the humidity rendered all artifice completely impossible and I sported frizzy hair, shinier than shiny skin, and at least ten prominent mosquito bites, but was about as relaxed and peaceful as I’ve ever been – proof positive that while that mirror on the wall still be some gauge of who the fairest of them all is, no amount of gazing into its depths will, it transpires, tell you who the happiest is.